Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Our lost Olympians

Entrance fees mean inner city kids don't have a chance

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I'm an old jock, never a star but one of those journeymen that every team needs. I watched the Olympics, particularly soccer, basketball and track and field. It brought back memories of scoring the winning goal in the city soccer championships of 1963.

I also remember a vibrant community centre where I played hockey and learned how to play tennis. We had flag football teams, and I was a catcher on the 12-year-olds' baseball team.

I cry when I look at what the City of Winnipeg has done to the inner-city community centres. These are where our future Olympians should be recognized and developed.

If you live in the inner city of Winnipeg you have little chance of becoming an Olympian. I drove past the Linden Woods Community Centre the other day. A beautiful building, bulging with programs. I drive by the Norquay Community Centre and the Turtle Island Community Centre in the inner city and they are quiet. No teams. The last basketball team from Point Douglas died two years ago. The entry fee was $1,600, a fortune in the inner city. The team couldn't come up with the money and folded.

When I was a recreation director for the city, in what is now known as the Centennial district, we had championship teams. Finalist in playground hockey at the Winnipeg Arena, equipment courtesy of a local union. City champions in softball. Winter games champions in gymnastics and floor hockey. Our gymnastics program, run by two wonderful local high school kids, had more than 60 kids participating. Every child played a role as they went to the Winter Games and came away with the city championship.

My biggest problem as a recreation director was transportation, since none of my parents had cars. Some might remember the green hockey shacks and will understand the risk the "shack man" took to lock up and drive our team to a game. Now teams are never formed because there is the huge barrier of a registration fee.

Most single parents, women, where the fathers of the kids have checked out, haven't got a dream of paying the fee. So the kids suffer because their father is a bum and Canada loses potential Olympians.

Recreation is a value in itself, something every Canadian child should be able to access. Funding another little program on a short-term basis won't make a difference. There are two basic steps that are needed.

First, if we want our kids to participate we need to eliminate team registration fees altogether. What a wonderful use of our tax dollar to see smiling faces on kids as they score a goal or perform rhythmic gymnastics even if they don't have a dad or a vehicle to get to the rink or gym. Financial barriers to participation guarantee failure.

Second, we need to provide our inner city community centres with professional help, recreation directors, to compensate for the lack of local skills. The inner city doesn't have the lawyers, contractors, teachers, business people who make up the normal community centre volunteers. The Norquay Knights 10-year-olds were able to compete with the best teams in the city but they were supported by many social agencies and the police. These teams need to be normalized. We need a Norquay Knights team in every sport for every age group.

If we want to see more medals, or if we just want to see more kids in sports, we need to spend the money at the inner-city community centre level. Everyone in Winnipeg should be asking the tough questions. Why are a third of the children in Winnipeg not allowed to participate in sports leading to the Olympics? What happened to equality of opportunity?

We can do things differently, but it won't happen unless Winnipeggers demand it.

 

Sel Burrows is a community activist who lives in Point Douglas.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 15, 2012 A10

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